November 17, 2013
There is nobody more accomplished and fun to talk to in the world of entertainment and film publicity in Dallas than the woman I had the pleasure of interviewing over lunch on a warm October day. Her clients lists of former and current clients includes popular Dallas names like the Alamo Drafthouse – DFW, Dallas International Film Festival, Dallas VideoFest, The Historic Texas Theatre, Angelika Film Centers, National Geographic Films and the Texas Woman’s University School of the Arts. Her website even states that she has “been honored as a ‘master publicist’ in the Fort Worth Business Press and a ‘media professional’ in The Dallas Morning News.”
As a journalist, I spend the majority of my time speaking with public relations professionals. Sometimes, it’s a pleasurable experience, and we both get the information we want and need. Sometimes, people in public relations are extremely rude, which led to my impassioned blog post on rude public relations professionals.
I first heard of Kelly Kitchens while working on the Top Women Owned Businesses List for the Dallas Business Journal. She was unlike any other professional I had worked with to that point, getting the information I needed almost immediately, and was courteous and kind the whole conversation. I looked her up and realized I had to hear more of her story.
Kelly was on yearbook staff and newspaper staff in high school and loved it. She said, “I was like: If I could do a yearbook for the rest of my life, I would have been happy.”
Teenage Kelly decided to move from her native Houston to go to University of North Texas to become a journalist. Kelly’s mission was to do feature writing and become a critic. Unfortunately, expectations of the program did not match reality. Kelly stayed a journalism major for three and a half years. “They really wanted to steer me towards hard news—like being a news reporter. I didn’t even take any PR courses. But seriously, everything I know [as a PR professional], I learned from being a journalist and I [still] think [like a journalist]. To me, the two differences between news reporting and feature writing are vast, and I wanted to be a feature writer.”
Kelly had wanted to write for magazines, emphasizing in fashion and film. She had expected her studies would lead to her dream job at Vogue on the noble mission of starting a new plus-size section.
Kelly’s posture stiffened and her tone heated as she declared, “None of those magazines have any sort of recognition that there are women my size you know, in the world. So, that was always my dream to say: Look, you’re ignoring a huge side of life that loves fashion, and who loves to look good as well.”
Kelly went on to explain her love of film and working in entertainment PR by explaining her love of old movies, as she pulled out a stack of cigarette cards from her purse. With each historic card, she tells a story.
Then, Kelly Kitchens showed the second to last card, and the most significant in her deck. The card featured the beautiful face of Boots Mallory, circa 1934.
“When I saw this one, I thought: Oh my gosh, she kind of looks like me. So I had my designer make my card turn her eyes from brown to blue and was like, that’s me! That’s me in 1934. I’ve aged well, haven’t I?” Kelly joked as she showed me her business card for the before and after effect.
After pausing to recover from the laughter, she continued her story.
“When my professor, who I don’t think is at North Texas anymore, was insisting that I really need to go into news reporting instead of feature writing. I decided to not be a journalism major anymore,” Kelly said. But what she thinks is so weird is that after graduating, all she’s ever done has been in journalism. I took particular note of this because this is not something you’d expect a public relations professional to say.
Kelly graduated from UNT in 1991 and did not move on to a master’s degree. But she could not escape college journalism. “In the early ‘90s, there was a magazine, it was a rag really, meaning that it didn’t have any umph to it. There was nothing noteworthy about it really. It came out of SMU,” Kelly said. To Kelly, the paper lacked substance. It was void of anything worthwhile, and primarily written about sororities and fraternities. When the publisher, who was still a student at Southern Methodist University, wanted to expand the paper at UNT, she did a mental SWOT analysis before seizing the opportunity.
“I was like: Well, at North Texas, you know, nobody cares about fraternity and sorority stuff,” Kelly said to the SMU student publisher. “You have to cover all the bands, you have to cover the art, and you have to cover theater—that side of things. He was like: I don’t know anything about all that. And I was like: Well, I do.”
So, basically, by default, Kelly became the entertainment editor for a little magazine that came out twice a month called The Student Voice where she was the music writer and editor. Kelly also said she “did stories about my artist friends.”
Kelly went on to explain some of her trials in public relations by explaining some brief Dallas media history.
“If you think about The Dallas Times Herald versus The Dallas Morning News—the Morning News was the more conservative paper- the Times Herald was known as being more liberal. When it came that the Morning News was only game in town; basically, the Dallas Observer, which had been a total arts and entertainment paper up to that point, picked up where The Dallas Times Herald left off and covered things like city hall and things that were happening at the police station and you know I mean all the hard news stuff.”
The covers of the Dallas Observer went from covering bands to covering the mayor, or some other citywide scandal. “So people were saying to the publisher of The Student Voice: You should take this paper city wide,” she said.
To give a little context, at that time, D Magazine had folded. So D Magazine wasn’t around. “We had The Dallas Morning News and The Observer who was going to more news. And we were like: Where can you find out about local bands? Where can you find out about art? Where can you look for movie reviews?”
So that’s when Kelly decided to help take The Student Voice citywide and started covering all North Texas. It became a weekly paper like the Observer but was strictly arts and entertainment and nothing else. It was called The Met.
As one of the founding editors of The Met, Kelly was the calendar editor and the film editor. “Anybody who had anything to do with arts or entertainment in the North Texas area had to contact me to be in the paper, and everyone wanted to be in our paper because we were fun,” Kelly chuckled.
As the calendar editor, Kelly was the one-and-only road for people in entertainment who wanted publicity. Kelly loved it. But she loved talking to people more. “As much as I thought I wanted to be a journalist, I loved all the connections I made, all the people that I was talking to every day,” she said. “I love, love, love, love, love it.”
Kelly’s time in journalism ended when someone tried to stifle her. Her editor decided to make her a staff writer instead of being an editor. “That said to me: Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be talking to anybody.” So like any good communicator, she started calling some of the publicists who had been contacting her over the years and asked their opinions on her entering their industry, “And, all of them were like: Oh my god, yes, you could totally do what we do.”
So Kelly left The Met on March 31, 1995.
“I didn’t mean to start my own business on April Fool’s Day of 1995. I thought I’d do this until I get a job. And here it is, nearly 19 years later, and I never found a job,” Kelly laughed. “My mom is still like: Kelly, when are you going to get a real job? I still get that call from my mom. So all of those, not all of them, but, I’d say, a good six publicists that I had been dealing with at The Met either brought me on for projects or they gave me clients that they couldn’t take anymore.”
Among her first clients was Kitchen Dog Theater. Kelly started building up, working with them, learning what they do and modifying it based upon what she knew she needed as an editor and a writer. “That’s how I do my business. I don’t tell my clients this, but my clients my pay my bills,” Kelly said. “But I work for the media, I work for journalists. If they need something, I’m all over it.”
Kelly said that she took all the ethics classes at UNT and learned a lot, making sure to never cross boundaries. “I’m very careful in how I do my business and keeping my friendships. If they can’t cover it, I understand and move on.”
For the disheartened youth, consider this. Kelly started her business before she had an email address. She was writing press releases, faxing them, and mailing them out (or hand-delivering them all across DFW). Her business started to boom until September 11, 2001.
“People stopped going out. They didn’t leave their homes from September 12, 2001 until about 2004. People didn’t leave. They didn’t go out. They didn’t go to plays. They didn’t go to movies,” Kelly said. “America was scared so everyone holed up at home. So I lost a lot of business. People couldn’t afford me.”
So Kelly needed a way to reinvent herself and began doing publicity for doctors, lawyers and childcare experts. Instead of strictly entertainment PR, she began to work “on the more lifestyle side of things.”
Kelly can teach Dallas public relations students and professionals what it means to be in entertainment public relations.